A last will and testament is a legal document that expresses how you want your property and assets distributed after your death. By spelling out exactly how you would like your estate handled when you die, you can avoid family strife and have peace of mind that they will honor your wishes. Here are the top ten reasons to make a will.
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1. Decide Who Gets Your Estate
A person who makes a will is known as a testator. Those who die without a valid will are “intestate.” If you die without a will, a probate court distributes your estate according to your state’s intestacy laws. There is no guarantee that these state laws align with your wishes. Drafting a will is the easiest way to keep your family heirlooms and sentimental possessions out of the hands of an ex-spouse or estranged relative.
Making your wishes known also reduces family infighting. Your children can’t argue who gets Mom’s jewelry if she has written it down.
2. Decide Who Will Take Care of Your Minor Children & Pets
A will gives you the power to decide who will care for your minor children if something happens to you. If you do not make this decision in a will and the child’s other parent is not living or available, a court will appoint a guardian. The court will most likely select the guardian among your family members, but you know your child best. Appointing a trusted guardian in your will ensures that this decision remains with you. You can rest assured that your child does not end up in the wrong hands.
And don’t forget your furry friends! Pets are considered property and can’t inherit. In your will, you can arrange for a caregiver to care for your pet.
3. Facilitate the Probate Process
Probate is the legal process to establish your will’s validity. The term also generally refers to the court-supervised process of distributing an estate.
Contrary to popular belief, probate is not always lengthy or expensive. The time and cost depend on factors like the size and value of your estate. That said, a clearly drafted will can minimize unnecessary delays. For example, if a disgruntled family member “contests” the distribution because they believe they deserve a larger share of your estate, a valid will quickly settles the dispute. By drafting a will, you are giving your loved ones the gift of a quicker and easier probate process.
4. Minimize Estate Taxes
You can explore various estate planning tools to minimize your estate taxes and reduce any inheritance taxes your loved ones may have to pay when they receive property from your estate. If you have a large estate that exceeds the federal estate tax exemption, you may want to keep tax planning in mind.
5. Decide Who Will Administer Your Estate
The person responsible for the administration of your estate is known as your personal representative. Your personal representative is responsible for paying your debts, notifying your bank and other business establishments, canceling your credit cards, and distributing your estate after your death. If you do not appoint this person in a will, a court will appoint one for you.
A personal representative has significant responsibilities. You can appoint someone organized, trustworthy, and competent in your will. Many people select family members as personal representatives. However, this is optional and may not always be the best option if you are worried about family disputes.
6. Disinherit Individuals You Do Not Want To Receive Your Property
Again, if you do not leave a will behind, probate courts will distribute your estate according to state intestacy laws. These laws create a hierarchy of inheritance among your surviving relatives (known as your heirs) that may not reflect the current state of affairs between you and your family members.
You can specify certain individuals to receive your assets as beneficiaries in your will. You must include them because intestacy laws might leave these people out. It also allows you to disinherit heirs who might otherwise be included. Make sure your instructions are clear and straightforward to avoid confusion and potential disputes among your family members after you die.
7. Make Gifts and Donations
In addition to distributing your estate to your family, a will also allows you to make donations to your favorite charitable causes. This is especially beneficial because gifts up to certain amounts may also reduce your tax liability. When drafting your will, check for the most up-to-date gift tax exclusions. If you do not have a will, intestacy laws do not provide for charitable donations.
8. You Can Always Update Your Will
Your will can (and should) be updated as your life circumstances change. Your most recent valid will is typically the most authoritative. There are many reasons you need to update your will. For example, life changes such as the birth of a new child, the death of a relative, and divorce can all create legal issues down the road if you don’t revise your will accordingly.
9. Avoid Legal Challenges
A will is a legally binding document that voices your desires when you are no longer around to speak for yourself. Your disgruntled relatives will think twice about challenging your will because will challenges are rarely successful. It is worth emphasizing just once more. A well-drafted will reduces the risk of legal challenges.
10. Tomorrow Is Not Promised
A will is an important document that is the cornerstone of your estate plan. Do not let procrastination get the best of you. Once you pass away, the opportunity to make a will is gone. Prevent additional grief for your family members during an already emotional time by drafting a valid will.
Next Step: Draft Your Will
Although this article only covers the top ten reasons you should draft a will, there are many more. Don’t hesitate to begin the process.
Most estates are simple. In these cases, you can save time and money by drafting your will using FindLaw’s do-it-yourself estate planning tools. If you have a large estate, a dependent with special needs, or additional questions, you can seek legal advice from an estate planning attorney near you.